As a special needs educator and a proud public school teacher, I’ve watched and participated in the debate over school reopening with a personal stake in the outcome. After all, my own health and safety, along with that of my students and their families, are all on the line.
But as students, teachers, and families agonize over what the next few weeks will bring, President Trump and Betsy DeVos have offered no leadership and no clear guidance on how to safely reopen our schools. Instead, Trump and DeVos have made reckless threats to cut off federal funding from our already-underfunded schools unless we give in to the administration’s demands to reopen — even as Arizona surpasses over 4,300 deaths due to COVID-19.
Now, I know a bully when I see one. After all, I’ve dealt with a bully or two in the classroom. Today, I’m sad to say that there’s one sitting in the White House — and Trump has given a new meaning to the term ‘bully pulpit’ by threatening to pull funding from our schools right when we need it the most. Trump is trying to bully schools into reopening unsafely. We won’t let him.
This is a fraught and uncertain time for communities in Arizona and across the country. We all want to see our students back in school as quickly as possible. Personally, I love my work and I take great pride in it — there is nothing I want more than to be back in the classroom teaching my kids. But my number one priority is to safeguard my students’ health and wellness, and my fellow educators agree. In Arizona, an overwhelming 8 in 10 teachers believe that schools should reopen only after public health experts determine it is safe to do so.
Trump isn’t on the same page. Instead, he’s putting politics ahead of public health. He’s trying to force our schools into reopening without giving us the tools we need to keep students, families, teachers, and staff safe. If the Trump administration had made the time to reach out to education leaders like myself, then maybe it would understand just how dangerous these threats are.
Arizonans are grappling with the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes — and the Trump administration’s failed leadership has only exacerbated an already dire situation. To make matters worse, the responsibility of caring for kids has fallen on working parents, who are being forced to choose between going back to work and jeopardizing their children’s safety. In Maryvale, where I teach, families of color bearing the brunt of the pandemic, and paying the price for the President’s incompetence with their lives and their livelihoods. It didn’t have to be this bad.
Trump’s chaotic coronavirus response has failed Arizonans at every turn. Trump isn’t looking out for the health and safety of students, educators, and families — he’s looking out for his own re-election campaign. He rushed to reopen states without safeguarding public health, and we know how that turned out in Arizona, where we are still grappling with the fallout from a cratering economy, severe testing shortages, and a double-digit unemployment rate. Now, he’s at it again.
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that Arizona ranks first among states for children testing positive for the virus with 1,206.4 cases per 100.000 children. Despite this, Trump is downplaying the threat of the virus and claiming that young people are ‘virtually immune’ — even as nearly 100,000 kids tested positive in just the last two weeks of July.
On top of that, Trump has insisted on taking a top-down, one size fits all approach to reopening, when he should be encouraging bottom-up solutions from state and local school leaders and public health experts instead.
Here in Arizona, we’ve fought to do just that. We worked with school leaders and public health experts across the state to compile fluid, flexible guidance on school reopening. Our plan was medically-based, and informed by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health Services.
Now more than ever, leadership matters. Trump wants to bully schools into reopening during the height of a pandemic with no plan to keep communities safe. He’s pushing for students, families, and school workers to be put in danger, and he’s rejecting the advice of experts and ignoring the concerns of educators on the ground.
Make no mistake: As long as Trump is President, teachers and educators will never have a seat at the table with the administration.
Arizonans deserve better. We need a leader who knows firsthand the challenges of caring for kids, and who will look out for the health and safety of our students, educators, and families. That leader is Joe Biden, and when he is President, our public schools will have an ally in the White House.
Kareem Neal is a self-contained Special Education teacher and the 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year.